How to mix food and business

The working breakfast. The “power” lunch. The business dinner. All part of the working world, but also
situations ripe for breaches in etiquette. How can you successfully mix food and business? Here are some suggestions:

What to Eat

Most working meals are called for the purpose of doing business. Don’t forget that. Whether you’re looking over paperwork, signing contracts, or simply getting to know someone better to determine if you want to do business with them, your main purpose is to conduct business.

Unless you’re a food critic, you are not there to critique the food or challenge the chef’s culinary skills. With that in mind, here are some ordering guidelines:

Breakfast: Opt for coffee (or tea) and a danish, bagel, croissant, or toast. Don’t order the Eggs Benedict, bacon and eggs, steak and eggs, or all-you-can eat pancakes. Those are all too heavy and too expensive. Keep it light and healthy. Stick with items you’d find on a Continental Breakfast tray.

Lunch: Never order something you can’t pronounce. If you’re taking an important client to lunch, “case” the joint beforehand to determine the best table and best menu choices. Never order food that is difficult to eat, requires a lot of your attention, or squirts, slurps, and makes a mess.

Best choices: Salads, grilled meat or fish, omelets, or other low-attention foods. Worst choices: Anything out of season (too frivolous), lobster (too expensive and too much work), snails (same reason), or any food
with a lot of garlic or onion.

Dinner: Unless you’re socializing, try to avoid dinner invitations, particularly if it’s with someone you don’t know well. Dinner is open-ended. You can’t look at your watch and say, “I have to get back to the office.” It’s also presumptuous to think that someone you don’t know well would like to spend his or her evening with you. Unless you have a set agenda and a very good reason for meeting after 6 p.m., don’t do it.

The only exceptions to this guideline should be if the client (a) is from out of town, or (b) specifically suggests it. Ask the client what time he’d like to dine. Don’t assume he eats dinner at the same time as you. Use the “best” and “worst” choice ordering guidelines from the lunch suggestions, above.

Another word of advice about food: try to eat like a native to the extent that your body will allow. If you travel around, do try to adapt to the local food and lunching customs. If, however, you’re faced with the types of food that spawn heartburn or indigestion, avoid them. Feeling bad anywhere-but particularly on the road with no caring hands around — hampers your business purpose.

What To Drink

The “two martini” lunch of yesteryear has been replaced by bottled water and iced tea. Most businesses frown upon alcohol consumption during work hours, and won’t reimburse it on expense accounts. Still, it is considered good manners to offer a drink to a guest.

The best way to suggest something-and make it easy for people to refuse alcohol-is to say, “Would you like something to drink – wine, bottled water, juice?” Never make someone feel uncomfortable for not drinking alcohol. If your guest orders a bottle of wine instead of a glass, he should offer to pay for it or give you his business on the spot-particularly if it’s a fine vintage.

However you choose to proceed, remember that, “loose lips sink ships”. If you don’t trust your alcohol-laden tongue not to say something it shouldn’t, don’t laden it with alcohol.

What To Say

Ever been “pumped” for free advice at a cocktail party or softball game? Ever had a potential client try to pick your brain over lunch? Ever been galled that people seem to think that you can be had for pastrami on rye?

So have I-and just about every other professional I know. If the person you’re talking to seems genuinely interested in your advice, it’s certainly appropriate to remind him that you are usually paid for such information. Here are some suggestions on how to do this:

“Your questions are very specific. May I assume that you might be interested in hiring me?”

“I’m sure you realize that this is the type of information I impart for a fee.”

“What you are asking requires a lot more thought than I can give off the top of my head right now. If you’d like to pursue this further, I’d be happy to give you my business card.”

“If you really want to know this, perhaps we need a business relationship that is more formal than these occasional get-togethers.”

If they’re truly interested, you may have landed yourself some business. If they’re freebie-seekers, you’ve politely told them to get lost. A win-win situation all around.

Conducting business over a meal can be beneficial, but it can also be tricky. Eat simple foods that don’t require a lot of your attention to consume, avoid alcohol, and don’t “give away the farm for free” — give them your business card instead and schedule an appointment. In short, use the time to build your relationship with savoire faire to spare.

Diana Pemberton-Sikes is a wardrobe and image consultant and author of “Wardrobe Magic,” an ebook that shows women how to transform their unruly closets into workable, wearable wardrobes. Visit her online at

Photo © Jacom Stephens